News From Nowhere's An Oak Tree brought together local performance group THEATREboom and British actor/playwright Tim Crouch to show Calgary audiences that a glass of water could be a fully grown tree, just as theatre performance could exist under the same principles as an act of mass hypnotism.
An Oak Tree, after coming out of a successful run in New York, was brought to Calgary as part of this year's High Performance Rodeo. The piece attempts to assert that theatre can be understood as an exercise in projection and suggestion, as well as that a play can exist as both scripted and improvisational simultaneously. This is done through a complex and heavily formulaic narrative, combined with the added gimmick of having a different guest actor for each performance of the two-person play (one role is always played by Crouch), with no prior knowledge of the script.
"I was a bit nervous," says Patrick MacEachern, THEATREboom 's guest actor for the opening night performance. "But meeting with Tim beforehand helped a huge amount. He's put on this show hundreds of times, so he knows exactly what questions the guest actors will have, and what he'll have to say to reassure them."
MacEachern met with Crouch for the first time 45 minutes before the show. He was shown how he would receive his lines via headphones relaying a signal from Crouch's microphone, a clipboard with several sheets of paper attached, directly from Tim on stage and given a trial cold read of non-related material to familiarize himself with the process.
"The most challenging part of the piece was establishing confidence in my portrayal of a character I knew nothing about," says MacEachern. "But it's like Tim says at the beginning of the performance--the audience is on my side. The crowd knows that I have no idea how my role will play out, whereas Tim's done this hundreds of times--they expect his role to be perfect."
Crouch lent an air of authority to the role from the moment he casually strolled onstage. A hush fell over the crowd as the tall, bald, and seemingly awkward man took up his microphone and, smiling nervously, announced to the audience his intent for the evening. If it weren't for the knowledge that he had performed this play well over a hundred times, an audience member would swear that Crouch was as uncertain about the piece as his guest actor. Knowing that, the audience is given a sense of the total control Crouch commands over both his character and the play. This level of control is integral to the layered narrative An Oak Tree presents, where he and MacEachern must transition from characters in the play to actors playing actors playing characters in the play.
During the course of the play, MacEachern went from garnering the audience's sympathy to deservedly earning their appreciation. MacEachern, a twenty-something young man in casual streetwear, believably acquired the role of Andy, a 42-year-old father whose life is being ruined by his inability to accept the death of his daughter.
An Oak Tree does occasionally trip over its narrative complexity, losing momentum in the clunkiness of its transitions, and its conclusion seems designed more to reiterate Crouch's ideas about projection than to resolve the plight of its characters. However, MacEachern's ability to personalize his role stands as testament to the improvisational element within Crouch's script, and the narrative remains cohesive enough to give new insight into theatre as a play of interacting elements of suggestion and projection. The result of News From Nowhere's ambitious foray into the notion of illusion overtaking reality is a deeply affecting portrayal of desperation and hope reclaimed through unexpected bonds, as well as a unique way of perceiving theatre.